Petitionary prayers exist of course. In the prayer-request books sometimes placed at the entrance to churches, we often read precise requests, frequently addressed to the Virgin Mary or St Rita, patron saint of lost causes:
– “Make Marcel love me again.”
– “Give my husband his transfer to Nîmes.”
In Palermo, I once read:
– “St Rosalie, save us from the pizzo (the tax extorted by the Mafia)”
We can seem to offer to the providence of God our daily needs and worries, in the hope that he will take care of them because he is concerned with human beings and listens to our requests.
But John Spong, Anglican bishop of Newark, was scandalised when his parishioners said of a remission in her cancer which his wife had enjoyed: “There were so many of us involved in prayer-chains for her that it’s not surprising that God took this into account.” Spong replied: “But that implies that God is responsive to the fact that lots of people know my wife, that she’s a bishop’s wife, and that that makes her important for him; whereas he would be less bothered about a poor lonely single woman. What an unappealing God!” (Pastoral Letter of May 2007)
This way of thinking about prayer ignores the suffering of the innocent and the myriad of unanswered prayers. The newspapers of Nashville, Tennessee gave lots of coverage to the following true story: after the car crash which the singer Barbara Mandrell had survived with minor injuries, President Reagan congratulated her, saying: “God protected you”, forgetting that the other driver involved in the accident had been killed! It is a bizarre conception of divine providence that imagines that God chooses to save one person and to allow the next to perish.
There are plenty of people who have had enough of this sort of spirituality, and rightly so. The question is often put following natural disasters which leave very large numbers of victims: if God is good, if he answers prayers by intervening in the events of the universe, and if he can intervene in the events of the world, how could he permit such suffering? Why did he not prevent it?
There are those who explain away these human dramas as punishments richly deserved by human bad behaviour: American televangelists have said that the 9/11 attacks and the various earthquakes which occur here and there are punishments inflicted by God on men and women who do not sufficiently oppose homosexuality and other sexual practices of which the televangelists disapprove. This implies that God is pre-eminently concerned with sexual questions.
But we are not in the end attracted to God because he answers our prayers, in the way that we would be to our MP if he did a favour for us. Prayer is not in the end about persuading God to begin to intervene in human affairs where we currently doubt that he is involved enough. Prayer is about persuading us to see our neighbours with the eyes of Christ, about delivering us from every spirit of absolutism and domination. Prayer opens our eyes so that we can see our neighbour as a person where God dwells and whom God loves. Christian prayer is a calm meditation which helps us see our lives and others’ lives with the faith, hope and love which Jesus Christ has made known to us.
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